By CATHERINE WILDE
Frenky, a Czech shepherd whose nose is constantly sniffing for drugs, is one of the Cortland County Sheriff’s Department two canine units that would be rendered obsolete if the state legalizes recreational marijuana this year.
The majority of the dogs’ duties is narcotics searches, say handlers, so their early retirement would be an unexpected consequence of legalizing recreational marijuana in New York.
Other consequences predicted by greater Cortland area officials and business owners, would be more predictable.
Legalizing marijuana is one the goals Gov. Andrew Cuomo has outlined in his 2019 agenda, but so far details are scant like how many retail establishments to allow or how much to tax the product.
Proponents argue that taxing marijuana will result in more tax revenue to funnel toward infrastructure improvements or neighborhoods that have been disproportionately affected by marijuana laws.
And it will reduce the disproportionate criminalization of one race over another, Cuomo’s office claimed.
However, Matthew Whitman, executive director of Cortland Area Communities that Care, said legalizing marijuana would just create more access to it for youths, like alcohol and tobacco.
Already marijuana is the second-most used drug among local teens behind alcohol, he said.
According to the most recent study of Cortland County youths between seventh grade to 12th grade, Whitman said, it was found that 13.9 percent reported having used marijuana within the past 30 days. By 12th grade one in four students reported having used it in the last 30 days.
Municipalities have some options to regulate where establishments selling marijuana are situated, said Cortland County Planning Director Dan Dineen.
They can treat them like adult entertainment facilities, for example, and not allow them to be placed within 1,000 feet of a school or church, he said. Or they can be treated like bars and taverns and municipalities can limit the number of them by not allowing them within 500 feet of one another.
“It would be done by each individual municipality and incorporated into their ordinances and they could determine through zoning where they would allow it,” he said.
Obsolete drug sniffers
Cortland County Sheriff’s Capt. Rob Derksen expects legalized marijuana would render the department’s two narcotics search dogs useless.
That’s unfortunate for 4-year-old Frenky, who’s been trained to sniff out narcotics, said his handler, Officer Kim Natoli. That’s the bulk of his work.
The dogs use what is called an “aggressive indicator,” Derksen said, meaning they will claw and bite at the surface where they smell drugs — a glove box or car upholstery, for example.
If marijuana is legalized, the dogs will still alert to the smell of it — they don’t distinguish between the drugs they smell — and that could open the police agency to two problems:
* Civil suits as the dogs could damage something when they scratch. “If it is an illegal substance we are protected under the law — qualified immunity — we don’t have to worry about that,” he said.
* Inappropriate searches or lost search warrants stemming from hits on marijuana. “If now the indication is based on a legal substance, it would give us false probable cause,” Derksen said.
Even retailers who could benefit from sales are ambivalent.
Maged Mozeb, who owns the Daily Grind, a convenience store with two locations on Main Street in Cortland that also sells tobacco products, said he’s not certain if he would expand his wares to marijuana should it be legalized.
“That’s something that, sometimes you have things that the neighborhood doesn’t like and a lot of people complain, even if it’s legal,” he said.
However, he’s open to the possibility.
“If a lot of people are going to ask for it and nobody complains about it and already someone has it and it’s going OK, we may try to get it in,” Mozeb said.
Another possible complication from legalizing marijuana are traffic stops, Derksen said.
There’s no breath test for marijuana, so if officers suspect someone is driving under the influence of marijuana, they will have to take that person to the hospital for a blood sample — a longer process that will just stretch the patrol force, he says.
Officers can get training to become drug-recognition experts, he said, but the number of trained officers remains low.
“If they want to have the substance legal, it would be great to give us the tools to do our jobs,” Derksen said.
Traffic fatalities and accidents increased in Colorado after recreational marijuana was legalized, he said, citing a study by the strategic intelligence unit of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area in September — marijuana-related traffic deaths increased 151 percent while all traffic deaths increased 35 percent.
Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton (D-Ithaca) said the issue still needs be discussed thoroughly.
While many Democrats support legalizing recreational use of marijuana, Lifton said, it would require some restrictions — for example ensuring it is not allowed for young people or while driving.
Another hurdle is that it remains a federally controlled substance, so making it legal in some states while illegal federally is a real problem, she said.
“Those kinds of sticky issues we really need to look at closely and figure out what to do with it,” she said. “It’s not a no-brainer for me.”